I. Convergence

by Sevenstars

Evening found Ezra in the hotel's lobby-saloon, playing poker with a couple of successful miners heading East, a lieutenant from Fort Sedgwick, the local RM&W agent, and Randolph Potter, who rented the general- store space from the owner. Inez Rosillos had indeed provided a skilfully smothered chicken for his private pleasure, and he had discovered that the bar stocked good Hermitage whiskey, probably for the better class of travellers, those who would recognize it when they saw the bottle or care enough to ask for "the good stuff." About an hour after he'd begun his game, last night's brown-suited man, tonight wearing double-breasted blue with a tail coat buttoned rather high, drifted in from the restaurant, spoke to the desk clerk and the bartender, and made his way casually over to Ezra's table. "Mr. Sayres, I think?" he ventured. "My name is Stuart James, I own this establishment. Mind if I sit in?"

"Please, be my guest, sir. All are welcome if they can sustain the fee."

James flipped his coattails back and settled down in the chair just being vacated by the lieutenant. "Table stakes, I presume?"

"Indeed, and no limit."

James produced a chamois money-bag and spilled an assortment of gold and silver coins, including a number of circular, rectangular, hexagonal, and octagonal twenty- and fifty-dollar California slugs, onto the tabletop. He squinted consideringly at Ezra as he began sorting and stacking them before him. "I understand you had an...encounter...with my nephew Lucas this afternoon," he mused.

Ezra took a cautious breath, grateful that he'd left his jacket unbuttoned so he could reach his shoulder-holster, but not especially eager to get into a fight with this man. There wouldn't be another westbound stage through for several days, and the Southerner had no desire to be forced out onto the prairie alone and ahorse at this tricksy season. On the other hand, there wasn't much percentage in denying it; young Lucas had probably provided quite an exact description of him. "I did, sir. Had you some thought of assumin' the mantle of avengin' the family honor?"

James snorted. "Lucas is sometimes a damn fool. He could have any number of girls in the settlement. Cooks as good as Inez aren't so easy to come by that I want him beating her up or worse--or even getting her mad enough to take off. Just because he doesn't have to pay for her is no reason for him to set his sights on her. The fact is, Mr. Sayres, I owe you thanks for saving me the possible loss of a valuable employee."

The Southerner let the air out slowly. "Then I trust you did not come in with unwholesome intent toward me?"

The older man grinned suddenly. "No, I came in because I heard there was a stranger in my saloon who seemed to be pretty well heeled. I'm in business to make money, one way or another, Mr. Sayres. Playing poker is the pleasantest way I know to do it."

"Then let us proceed," Ezra suggested. "Mr. Potter, I believe it is your deal."

It didn't take very long for the gambler to realize that, while James might have publicly disavowed any plan to do him bodily harm, the saloonowner did have a plan by which to humiliate him as his nephew had been humiliated. In any poker game, after about an hour, a good player began to get the "feel" of it and pace his play accordingly, sensing--through conversation, the so-called "poker instinct," style of play, or whether someone was riding a lucky streak--who was strong and where the big raises would come from, who was a good loser and who wasn't, who really knew what he was doing and who thought the whole thing was just luck, and who if anyone was cheating. James was really very transparent, perhaps because out here in the middle of nowhere he wasn't accustomed to dealing with the best hands. His first attempt came when they cut for the deal and he tried to gain the high card for himself--thus guaranteeing a chance to cheat at the deal--by letting his finger tap the stack gently as he reached to make his cut. Ezra didn't say anything, but he guessed immediately that there was a slick ace in the deck, one whose face was treated with shellac so it would slide easily. When James turned up the ace of clubs, he was sure of it. He hid a smile, shuffled, and cut on his own, bringing up his signature card, the ace of spades. Round one to me, sir, he thought, watching the spark of disappointment that shot through James's eyes.

The second try came when they changed to a new deck. Ezra snaked his hand out and deftly captured it before James could, broke the seal and squared the deck, then shoved it toward the older man in such a way as to make him show a deliberate preference for a side grip. James took it. As I thought. A trimmed deck, with the ends of the aces and face cards and the sides of the rest shaved. Well, sir, two can play at that game. Grifts and cons were one thing, but poker, to Ezra, was another. He made it a rule not to be the first to cheat; his skill, in most cases, was enough, with his trained facility at bluffing and his keen understanding of the mathematics of the game, to keep him at least breaking even. But that didn't mean he couldn't do it if provoked. He could run up a top stock or a bottom stock while shuffling, shift the cut, deal from the top or the bottom, palm cards, stack the deck, cold-deck, second-card, or second- deal. He knew all about slick aces, marked and trimmed cards, shiners, mirrors in pipe-bowls or matchboxes, sleeve and belt holdouts, linework, shadework, false shuffling, false cutting, location, butting the cards, and the tiny pricks in finger rings for the purpose of marking. He knew about cold decks held underneath a tray of drinks or sandwiches, ready for a switch. He could mark a virgin deck in less than two hours of play, or do a fake shuffle or make an ace-up-the-sleeve appear faster than the eye could follow. He almost enjoyed the challenge of having a cheat in the game; it gave him license to allow his own skill full play. Stuart James might be a gentleman in his fashion, as Inez had suggested, but he had clearly made up his mind to get his own back from the gambler who'd been reckless enough to threaten his nephew. Ezra cut the cards, shifted the cut, built a center stock, cut to the center and had his stock on the bottom, ready to deal. His own cards came from the top, everyone else's from the bottom. He didn't try to guarantee himself a winning hand; he had nothing against the other players. He simply made sure James wouldn't get it either.

The night wore on, the other men gradually dropping out. Slowly, by some peculiar osmosis, it became understood by everyone in the room that there was a duel going on. They might not know just what these two men had against each other, but they knew something was there. The faro game in the back lost its customers, the drinkers along the bar turned to put their backs to it and watch the action as best they could. Free now to do pretty much as he pleased, Ezra shifted his tactics a bit, making sure James got just enough decent hands to keep him in the game, keep him hopeful and keep him raising. The stakes got higher. More and more money appeared in the center of the table and in front of the players. Once James excused himself to go into some back room, where there was presumably a safe, and replenish his finances. Ezra smiled sweetly and whipped him seven hands running, just to show he could. He knew James wasn't going to call him publicly, not unless he had no other option left. James didn't want him dead; he wanted him broke, humiliated. Ezra didn't plan on being either one.

After a time Ezra decided to see what would happen if he asked for a new deck himself. He didn't catch the signal that passed between James and the bartender, but once the cards were out he had no doubt what it had been intended to convey. The cards had a complicated, busy back design. Oh, Mr. James, you should know better. What sort of fool precisely do you take me for? I had thought I had already proved myself a player of experience. No such card man would engage in a game where cardbacks of this kind were used: they were too likely to be "readers" or "advantage cards," marked decks that used a code worked into the design. For at least a decade half a dozen firms--the best known were E. M. Grandine of New York and Doctor Cross & Co. of New Orleans--had been manufacturing the species, openly advertising their product in the newspapers. Every professional knew their commonest designs: calico, endless vine, stars, marble, perpetuum mobile, mille fleurs, plaids. Still, you realize now that I have no intention of givin' up. So you are willin' to take the chance that I will not drop out at the sight. Just to confirm his guess, he waited till the deal came back to him, held the deck in his left hand and riffled it rapidly with his other thumb. An honest design would have remained steady to the eye. This one didn't. The alteration of pattern caused by the marks to denote rank or suit was clear. Very well, sir. Swim with sharks and you will be bitten. And Ezra shifted into his highest gear, like a steamboat engineer hanging a wrench on the safety valve and his hat on the gauge, and set to work to learn just what the deck's code was--and then add one of his own.

It was thirty- five minutes past one A. M. when he made his move. "I will see your two thousand, Mr. James, and raise you three thousand more." And he pushed his entire stack of money into the center of the table and sat back patiently, his face mild, unchallenging.

James looked down at the money left before him. Ezra knew precisely how much was there even before he spoke. "I only have thirty-five hundred left."

"Then I fear I must take the pot without revealin' my hand," Ezra observed. "Unless, of course, you have somethin' else you care to bet?"

James breathed in and out deeply as if gathering his courage. "George," he called quietly to the bartender, "a sheet of paper, please."

George brought it. James wrote quickly. "A deed, Mr. Sayres, to this building, the furnishings, stock, and good will, together with my lease arrangement with Russell, Majors, & Waddell." He pushed his thirty-five hundred into the pot and slapped the paper defiantly down on top of it. "Call."

Ezra let his gold tooth gleam briefly. "That seems more than satisfactory. What do you have?"

James laid his cards down. "Four ladies and a gentleman."

Ezra nodded thoughtfully. "A very good hand indeed," he drawled. "Only one degree removed from bein' excellent, in fact." Excellent would have been four kings and an ace. "But this one," the gambler murmured against the hush of the room, "is better." He turned it over. Four aces and a king. "I believe, sir, that I have won."

James went white and then red as he realized just what Ezra must have been doing the last hour or so. Standish waited; if the man was going to lose control, this would be the moment. But the Southerner's easy, low-key confidence was so marked that even in his extremity James saw it and understood its significance. "Yes, you have. I'm afraid that does it for me. I'm tapped."

Ezra inclined his head slightly. "I make it a rule never to force a man to play if he doesn't wish to. May I assume that, havin' gained ownership of the property, I have the privilege of placin' my winnings in the safe?"

"Of course. I'll write down the combination for you. I have a room off the office, do you mind if I take the time to remove my personal effects from it?"

"Please proceed. Meanwhile--" Ezra addressed the patrons and staff-- "drinks are on the house."

Fifteen minutes later James reappeared with a large carpetbag adorned with roses. He handed Ezra a key ring--a strong gold chain threaded and clasped through a hole drilled in a huge, polished elk's tooth--and a small clutch of papers. "I thought you'd want to be certain I wasn't trying to sneak these out," he said. "Deed to the lot the building sits on, lease agreement, and the combination to the safe. You'll have to accept my word that I left the books in it."

"If you have not," Ezra retorted mildly, "I should find it but an inconsequential undertakin' to ascertain where you live."

James studied him a moment. "Would you consider selling the building back to me? I have more cash at my home. That last pot gave you sixty-five hundred dollars. I'll pay you four thousand more to regain my property."

Ezra knew that four or five thousand was a figure sufficient to start, and presumably to buy, a tavern of quite reasonable quality. Thanks to his winnings, he had even recouped the money he'd spent on bribes and false trails to get himself out of New Orleans, and later St. Louis and St. Joseph, without (he hoped) leaving enough hints for Saint-Mémin or anyone he sent to pick up. His stage ticket could be used to resume his interrupted journey to California whenever he wished, and he'd have a cozy stake when he got there. But this place was more than a saloon, after all; it was hotel and restaurant and generated revenues from the rents paid by the proprietors of the store and barbershop. Of course Ezra had no intention of staying in these primitive surroundings forever. But even six months or a year would guarantee him an effortlessly gained return of probably at least as much as the cash he'd just won, and then he could unload the place at a profit. In any case, he was just stubborn enough not to want James to think he had driven him out. "No," he decided, "I think not. I have always wondered what sort of businessman I would make. This seems an opportunity perfectly suited to determine the answer to that question. Good evenin', Mr. James. It has been a pleasure doin' business with you."

James's lips compressed and the corner of his mouth twitched. "Very well," he said, and went out.

Don't presume that you have deceived me, sir, Ezra thought, watching his retreating back. There will be another engagement one day, most probably at a time of your choosin'. But not immediately. He stood and crossed the room to the registration counter where the sleepy young clerk of last night was leaning. "What is your name, my friend?"
The clerk blinked, then seemed to suddenly remember he was being addressed by his new boss and straightened up fast. "Jacob, Mr. Sayres."

"Jacob. Very good. Would you kindly show me to the owner's quarters, Jacob? And then see that my effects are removed from my room upstairs and brought down to me."

"Sure thing, Mr. Sayres." Jacob lifted the dropleaf at the end of his counter and led the way toward a door at the right rear corner of the room, almost under the stairs.

"In fact, Jacob," Ezra told him, "my name is Standish--Ezra Standish. I think I should prefer to be called by it now that I have become a creature of property."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Standish."

+ + + + + + +

On his second day in Jamesburg Ezra lay for a time blinking sleepily at yet another strange ceiling and trying to remember why it wasn't covered with pictures from illustrated papers. As his mind re-engaged, he smiled and pushed himself up in the bed, elbowing the goose-feather pillows with their embroidered cases into a pyramid against the bedhead and lying back on them with hands clasped behind his head as he scanned his new quarters by the thin late-March sunlight filtering in through the windows, where hung scalloped white-lace curtains overlain with rose-red brocade ones. James's room was at least twice the size of the one he'd slept in the previous night, and almost the only point of similarity between the two was the closely fitted vertical mill-sawn boards that had been used to cover the interior walls. Cotton blankets, put on in late fall for added warmth, clad the duck-down mattress of the carved-rosewood François Seignouret bed and served as upper sheet beneath the silver silk comforter and Blazing Star quilt, which started with flame and pink in the center of every huge exploding pattern of little diamond-shaped pieces, went on through orange, yellow, green, and lilac into flame, and then to pink again. Opposite was a large rectangular washstand decorated in Rococo scrolls and fruit in carved mahogany, its marble top pierced with not one, but two circular holes to receive basins. The mirror back in its carved mahogany frame reflected a matched set--two pitchers, basin, soap dish, cover, and drainer, china mug for tooth-cleaning, brush vase--of pale blue French china adorned with a profusion of small pink roses. A matching commode sat to the right of the bed, and to the left, perfectly suited for reading in bed, was a three-legged table with a drawer, on which stood a fine Argand oil lamp. A monumental ten-foot- high Seignouret armoire and marble-topped rosewood bureau completed the bedroom suite. In addition there was a red-velvet-covered divan, two comfortable-looking chairs upholstered in silk damask, and a marble-topped John Belter rococo center table carved with scrolls and flowers, such as would be found in a parlor or sitting room, the last centered by a double-light bronze Argand lamp with a center oil font in the shape of a Greek amphora, finished off with ormolu scroll handles and egg-and-dart decoration. The presence of a set of Gothic mahogany chairs with pointed arches and trefoil suggested that the table was alternatively used for dining; two of them flanked a marble- topped sideboard on which stood several decanters and an assortment of barware. A classical-style open stove with a dunce-cap dome offered the prospect of heat and the option of heating one's washing and shaving water on the spot whenever desired. On the walls hung prints of Meissonnier etchings of seventeenth-century cavaliers, eighteenth-century gentlemen playing chess, and Napoleon at Jena and Austerlitz and reviewing the Old Guard. The floor was all but hidden under a great rug of Turkey-red, blue, and green. Say what you will about Mr. James, Ezra told himself contentedly, he knows- -knew--how to live.


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